In college I had a brief interest in architecture. But just when I thought I could spot the difference, for instance, between Gothic cathedrals -- lots of pointy arches -- and Roman cathedrals -- lots of rounded columns -- the teacher would test me. He'd plop a picture of a cathedral in front of me and ask me to name the architectural style.
The cathedral in question would have lots of pointy arches, which meant it should be Gothic. But it also would have lots of rounded columns, which was classic Roman style. I would stare and stare at the picture. Finally I made my decision. I decided I would stop studying architecture.
I avoided architecture for years. But my interest in it recently took a sharp upward turn when I judged an edible architecture contest in downtown Baltimore. Instead of brick, mortar and wood, the scale models I was judging were made of gingerbread, icing and marzipan.
I saw the seven structures in the windows of the former Hecht Company building at Lexington and Howard streets, where they will be on display to passersby until mid-December. The contest, coordinated by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, was a benefit for Action for the Homeless. Other judges were Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Architecture Magazine editor Heidi Landecker, food writer Joan Nathan and Becky Swanston, a local architect.
I thought the structures were terrific. I'm not sure they could all pass the building code -- there are probably rules against using royal icing for window frames -- but looking at them made me hungry.
And they renewed my interest in identifying architectural styles.
There was, for instance, the piece that showed a chocolate-covered King Kong climbing the edible Empire State building. I spotted this as the classic "bittersweet chocolate Kong style."
It was the work of Duncan Walker of Probst-Mason architects and Randy Stahl, chef of the Brass Elephant restaurant, and it won first place. Moreover, it had a Christmas theme. Instead of fleshy starlet Fay Wray, this Kong was clutching a Santa made of marzipan.
When I saw the model of the Broadway Pier made with gingerbread, ringed with marzipan and topped with gumdrops, I immediately recognized it as the "gumdrop-marzipan fantasy" style of architecture. That is exactly how architect Bill Keller of Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet later described the building. He teamed up with executive chef Michael Rork of Harbor Court Hotel to construct it. It won second prize.
The most decorated structure was the gingerbread clock tower with licorice ropes and a strange dragon on the lawn. It was made by architect Nathalie Tisseaux of Ayers/Saint/Gross and chef Paula Bauer. It won third place in the judging, was chosen by Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke as his favorite, and was also voted as the "people's choice" by onlookers.
The piece had a colonnade decorated with an endless number of clocks.
To me the work was obviously from the "endless-icing" school. And in an interview later Ms. Tisseaux used precisely that word, "endless," in describing how the team of eight workers viewed their task of making the lawn of green frosting. She also said the dragon was Godzilla, edible of course.
Other architectural styles I spotted were the "chocolate Bromo" look. This was a chocolate-covered model of Baltimore's Bromo-Seltzer tower. It was part of the display put together by architect Peter Garver and chef Nancy Longo of Pierpoint Restaurant.
There was the "Cookie Monster on the roof" look of the gingerbread house made by chef Glee Ianniello and architect Tim Duke. It gives new meaning to the line from an old holiday poem: "And then in a twinkling I heard on the roof . . ."
There was a "gingerbread neighborhood" look to the nine gingerbread houses put together by Jane Gregory of RTKL and Jerry Edwards of Chef's Expressions.
The roofs of the two traditional gingerbread houses worked on by chef Guy Reinbold of the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel and Kathy Linquist of Gould Architects and Scott Murrell of Daniel Consultants were covered with thick icing. This was a telltale signal that they subscribed to the "icing-is-the-best-topping" school of design.
In interviews the chefs and the architects said they had learned from each other.
Architect Keller said he was impressed that chefs can make such straight lines with icing, without using "the parallel straightedge."
He also said that most of the time it is hard to find volunteers to test building materials, like concrete, for reliability. But once the word got out that the materials being tested for this project were gingerbread and chocolate, he said, his colleague Carl Oehrig immediately volunteered his services as tester.
Others said adjustments had to be made. Chef Stahl, for instance, said his teammate, architect Walker, wasn't used to drawing plans for walls made of gingerbread. When it is cooked, gingerbread ordinarily puffs up. Getting two pieces of this kind of gingerbread to form a smooth corner is difficult. So Stahl changed his normal recipes, and made special unleavened gingerbread. The result was a structure so smooth that even the windows fit.
Finally chef Ianniello said that even though she didn't win the top prize with her structure, she was pleased with it. Moreover, it has attracted the interest of an eater. The other day she went down to look at her model, she saw a mouse nibbling on one corner of the gingerbread house. That proves, she said, that in addition to being amazingly whimsical, the structure was also definitely edible.